Improving Tucson’s worst mobile home parks involves a lot of ifs.
If unsafe and unsanitary trailers were condemned, if salvageable trailers were renovated, if park owners had an incentive to maintain their premises, trailer parks could become a lifeline for thousands of the area’s poorest residents, advocates say.
But that area’s shortage of affordable housing gets in the way of all those possibilities.
“As ugly and ratty as it looks, that may be the last place someone can live before they’re in a cardboard park by the riverbed,” says park owner Kirk Saunders.
Even without solving the larger problem, possible solutions do exist. For example, mobile home owners can get extra consumer protection by buying the land underneath their trailer. Tenants can join together to demand better treatment — or better yet, they can get help to buy their park and run it as a co-op so they’re not subjected to the whims of a predatory or neglectful owner. Park owners can be required to become licensed by the state and undergo regular inspections.
“Parks can be done right,” says Stacey Epperson, CEO of Louisville, Ky.-based Next Step, a nonprofit that replaces substandard trailers with high-quality manufactured homes. “They can be communities where families rely on one another, whether it’s helping with child care or checking on elderly neighbors.”
SOLUTION: AFFIXED HOMES
For years after her husband died, Erika Ortiz lived in a one-bedroom mobile home with her two teenage daughters and her mother.
She and her daughters shared the bedroom, while her mother slept in the living room.
“I was depressed,” says Ortiz, who makes about $16,000 a year running a housekeeping business. “I was trying to have something better for my daughters and for my mom, but I couldn’t.”
She felt like she was throwing her money away to rent the trailer and the space below it — expenses that left her with no savings at the end of the month.
But in 2012, the Primavera Foundation helped the family secure an affordable, low-interest loan on a manufactured home in South Tucson, with a monthly mortgage payment of $390.
Since the manufactured home has been permanently affixed to the land beneath, it is considered real estate and can build equity — unlike a moveable mobile home, which is considered chattel, or personal property, and is titled through the Motor Vehicles Division. Also, buyers of affixed manufactured homes can get better loan terms, not just the higher-interest, predatory lending more common with personal-property loans.
Erika’s daughters, now 19 and 21, finally have their own rooms. Both daughters hold jobs and take classes at Pima Community College. And Erika finally has an investment she can pass on to her children.
“This is perfect for me,” she says. “Now I can say it’s my house. That’s very important.”
About three-quarters of metro Tucson’s 44,000 mobile homes are owner-occupied, but many sit on rented land. That means the owners can’t build any real equity, advocates say, and they’re at risk of losing their investment if the mobile home park owner decides to sell to a developer or shut down the park. For many, the cost of relocating their trailer would be more than they could afford. (The state relocation fund can provide these tenants with up to $5,000 to help move a single-section mobile home.)
Beverly Parker, managing attorney with Southern Arizona Legal Aid, says mobile home buyers should purchase the land underneath their trailer whenever possible. Stronger consumer protections apply to real estate than chattel: Licensed real estate agents selling site-built homes can be held liable for blatant misrepresentation of the condition of the home, Parker says. Not so for those selling an unaffixed mobile home.
Park owners are reluctant to dispose of trailers with a junk value of a few hundred dollars, because they can still make money renting or selling them, Parker says.
“They’re selling these things for anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000, with 6 percent to 12 percent interest,” she says. “That sounds like misrepresentation, even fraud, but no one regulates those sales.”
SOLUTION: PARK CO-OPS
The Primavera Foundation has moved about 25 families from substandard structures, including mobile homes, into energy-efficient, affixed manufactured homes. With help from Next Step, Primavera purchased the manufactured homes affordably on a large scale. Primavera also helps families with installation of the homes and financing.
Some nonprofits, like New Hampshire-based ROC-USA, help park tenants buy their park themselves and run it as a cooperative, sometimes putting the land into a community trust.
Eighteen states — not including Arizona — have laws that encourage residents to buy their park if the owner puts it up for sale — either by guaranteeing the residents extra time to organize and attempt to buy, or by giving owners tax breaks if they sell to the residents or a land trust, says Doug Ryan of the Corporation for Enterprise Development in Washington, D.C.
Some local advocates suggest city or county governments could buy distressed parks and replace them with decent, affordable housing. But the cost of buying even run-down parks could be significant, says Danny Knee, former interim executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Tucson. In some cases, owners are making a lot of money off their parks — even more so if none of their profit goes to maintenance.
“Mobile home parks can be cash cows,” he says. If the land is already paid off, “all of it is cash flow for the owners.”
Improving the conditions in the worst parks may take a higher level of government involvement than currently exists.
Tougher code enforcement that seeks out dangerous housing would hold all parks to a higher standard, says Saunders, who owns a mobile home park in Sahuarita and 10 others in Phoenix, California and Texas.
“It’s not just our industry that needs to be called out for having substandard housing. It’s across the rental market,” he says. “We don’t have effective code enforcement. Government, if they actually enforced the law, would prevent those kinds of places from operating.”
The city’s code enforcement division handles 10,000 to 11,000 complaints a year. With fewer inspectors since the recession, the division struggles to keep up, says Teresa Williams, division administrator.
Most complaints to the division involve graffiti, neighborhood cleanup and aesthetics, and those tend to drive code enforcement’s priority list, says Ernie Duarte, director of planning and development for the city, which includes code enforcement.
Proactive work to seek out unreported violations in mobile home parks falls by the wayside, he says.
“I think we have an obligation to do that, but there’s other pressing matters that arise,” he says. “Our code enforcement efforts are basically reactive.”
Mobile homes proliferated here during the Sunbelt’s housing boom in the mid-20th century. Arizona’s relatively mild weather — no hurricanes and few earthquakes — made trailers a good option, especially for retirees.
Most mobile home parks in the city today were originally established on unincorporated county land, and few rules guided how they were built. Many have been annexed into the city, and most of those have been grandfathered in as “nonconforming use” sites.
There is still little oversight of the parks, which don’t have to be licensed by the state — as is the case in many mobile home-heavy states.
“In terms of regulating parks, nobody does,” says Debra Blake, deputy director of the Office of Manufactured Housing in the Arizona Department of Fire, Building and Life Safety. “Should they be? That’s the age-old question.”
Licensing might help address some of the problems in the parks, officials say. A required annual inspection of the parks in Tucson might give park owners more incentive to keep trailers and park infrastructure up to code, says Williams, of code enforcement.
“Tenants don’t complain because they are concerned with being evicted, so this way it’s mandatory to have the inspections,” she says. “Then at least somebody’s getting in there and checking the stuff. If the landlord is doing a good job, you give them some breaks.”
In California, annual mobile home park inspections were eliminated in 1973, and the lack of oversight had consequences, a housing official says. Park residents encountered a surge in health and safety violations throughout the 1980s, so the state reinstated regular inspections — once every five years for each park — in 1990. Today, the state requires that 5 percent of parks get inspected annually, says Eric Johnson, spokesman for the California housing department. Counties are also free to take on enforcement if it’s at least as stringent as the state’s standards.
The Manufactured Housing Communities of Arizona, a lobbying group for park owners, opposes licensure, says Executive Director Susan Brenton.
“Really, there isn’t a reason for it,” she says. Tenants with problems can file a court case or go through the Office of Administrative Hearings to file a complaint for $50.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who represents neighborhoods in Northwest Tucson, including the mobile home-heavy Flowing Wells area, also chafes at the idea of adding regulations to address the problem.
“Adding another layer of cost and paperwork to the park owner could tip the scales against (the owner) doing an electrical upgrade,” she says. “We just have to be careful about assuming that laying down the law is really what’s going to fix things, when it’s more complicated than that.”
Local governments should embrace mobile home parks and provide oversight, but should not “try to zone away or regulate parks out of existence,” says Epperson, the homeownership advocate.
SOLUTION: EMPOWER TENANTS
Empowering park residents to keep pressure on landlords could help even out the balance of power, advocates say.
But membership in the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home and RV Owners, which represents mobile home park tenants who own their trailers, has declined from 12,000 a decade ago to about 6,000 today, says Joe Scelza, vice president of the group. Mobile home residents tend to be apathetic about the organization until they face a problem, he says. The group still helps all mobile home owners, but it needs members to stay financially and politically strong.
“We don’t have the clout that we had when we had 12,000 members,” he says. “We used to be able to put pressure on owners to do the right thing.”
Some tenants are taking action themselves.
At Terra Vista Estates, a 55-plus manufactured housing community in Flowing Wells, the trailers are tidy and well-kept. Resident Dara Bottenhagen, 58, says she started a tenants’ union last summer so park residents could unite against unpredictable utility bills and annual $25 rent hikes that she says have forced elderly residents to leave the community.
“It’s very hard for people to pay,” she says.
Property manager Jill Yeager says the rent increases are in response to inflation and rising costs of running the park.
“We have to do rent increases to compensate for that,” she says. “That’s pretty standard.”
When tenants are treated well, mobile home parks can be both affordable and safe places to live, says Clancey Grove, a longtime park resident.
Grove, 35, rents a 1970s-era trailer and the trailer space at Covered Wagon mobile home park for about $700 a month.
Six years ago, when she moved to the park, neighbors hosted regular barbecues. The entire park came out to socialize and eat together.
“One year we set up picnic tables in my driveway and we put a tent over it and had a big Thanksgiving dinner,” she says.
Times have changed. Meth lab busts have become common in the area surrounding the park, she says.
“In the time we’ve been here, we’ve seen the police raid the park next door five times,” she says. “Now there’s hardly anybody (living) here except for people that either want to move, or people that just don’t care.”
When owners care about their parks, it shows, says local park manager Jody Walsh. She and her husband, Dennis, run Vista del Norte, a large mobile home park on Limberlost Drive. She said it’s distressing to hear about badly run and exploitative parks, because that reflects on mobile home communities at large.
At Vista del Norte, the park’s 93-year-old owner drives through the park every day to ensure everything meets his standards, she says. He doesn’t hesitate to spend money on maintenance and upkeep. He also tells his managers to enforce park rules consistently.
“We try to treat the tenants with respect, while still enforcing the rules,” Walsh says. “I live here, too. I have a vested interest in making sure it’s a safe place to live.”